Be Wise, but Trust God
Passage: Ecclesiastes 8:2-9
One of the things I love about Ecclesiastes is its emphasis on balance. Over and over, Solomon says, “Don’t go too far this way, don’t go too far that way, stay right in the middle!” One of the topics on which Ecclesiastes brings balance is the topic of wisdom. You might remember that we are in a section in Ecclesiastes that highlights wisdom. It even sounds a lot like Proverbs sometimes. Time and time again throughout this section, Solomon praises the value of wisdom. There are certain things that wisdom can’t do. It can’t prevent calamity from happening. It can’t guarantee that your life will go well. Most importantly, wisdom can’t save you from death. These limitations of wisdom force us to trust not in wisdom, but in God, the Giver of every good gift and the one who knows best, even when life hurts. When we learn to trust in God like that alongside of our own efforts to please him and act wisely, we are approaching the balance He desires.
Today’s passage is an excellent example of this balance I’ve been talking about. In vv. 2-6, Solomon exhorts us to act wisely, specifically as it relates to the government. But then in vv. 6-9, he turns around and says there are certain factors that are beyond our control. Verse 6 is the hinge verse (v. 6). There is a proper time and procedure for interacting with kings, but even those who observe those things still suffer greatly at times.
Today, I’d like to take a “zoom in, zoom out” approach to this passage. First, we’re going to zoom in and look at the specific instructions in vv. 2-9. Then, we’re going to zoom out, and talk about the implications of some of these broader principles we’ve been discussing.
[Read Ecclesiastes 8:2-9.]
Respect Political Authority.
First, let’s take a look at the setting. The setting is absolute monarchy. Ancient near-eastern kings were not known for being kind or for sharing power. They could be harsh, and their word was law. How many of you were here for Pastor Kit’s series on Esther? Just picture King Ahasuerus. His queen defies him, he replaces her. He gives a decree, and an entire race of people is scheduled for annihilation. He gets angry at Haman, and they put a bag over Haman’s face because they know he’s a goner. That’s a picture of the kind of power we are talking about here. Now, hopefully the kings of Israel would be better than Ahasuerus, but they still wielded tremendous power. The power of the king is especially emphasized in vv. 3-4. In v. 3, Solomon says that the king does whatever pleases him. Verse 4 says, “Where the word of the king is, there is power; And who may say to him, “What are you doing?” What the king says, goes. Period. No one can question him.
So that’s the setting; now what are the commands?
Number one, obey the king. In v. 2, Solomon says, “Keep the king’s commandment.” And the same command is implied in v. 5, when Solomon says that the one who keeps the king’s command will experience nothing harmful. So how should God-fearing people respond to an absolute monarch? Should they refuse to obey him and stand up for their rights? No! They should obey him.
Does this apply to us today? You bet it does! The New Testament tells us to in no uncertain terms that we are to be subject to the governing authorities. We are to obey whatever government the Lord places us under, whether that be a tyrant of a king, or the state of California. So let me just ask you, how are you doing at obeying that command?
Number two, think twice before leaving your place of influence. Verse 3 says, “Do not be hasty to go from his presence.” What does that mean? It could mean, “Do not leave the king’s physical presence rashly, as if your business was more important than his.” However, it’s very hard for me to imagine anyone actually doing that, in light of what we just said about absolute monarchy. So I think it’s better to take this phrase to mean, “Do not act rashly in resigning from an influential position.”
Number three, whatever you do, don’t get on his bad side. The second part of verse 3 says, “Do not take your stand for an evil thing [or a ‘bad’ thing].” The word translated “evil” there is a broad word that probably refers to anything that the king finds displeasing, although some have suggested that it is specifically a reference to a conspiracy. In other words, Solomon is saying, “Don’t do something bad in relation to the king. Don’t tick him off.” Or maybe even, “Don’t conspire against him.”
So those are the commands; now let’s take a look at Solomon’s reasons. Solomon gives both a negative and a positive reason for his command.
Because If You Don’t Obey, both God and the King Will Be Angry with You (vv. 2-5)!
You say, “Where in this passage do you get the idea of God being angry?” Look down at v. 2 (v. 2). So keep the king’s commandment, why? (because of your oath to God) It’s likely that the target audience in this passage is not so much the general populace as it is people in places of political influence. These government officials may very well have taken specific vows of office, kind of like the ones our representatives and President take today. Or, this could be a reference to more of an understood vow that every citizen was under. But either way, the point is the same. Solomon says, “You promised God that you would obey the king. So don’t break that promise!” How does God feel about people who make promises to Him and then break them (5:4-6)? So how does God feel about people who break their vows? (He gets angry at them!) So when we come to 8:2, the idea is, “If you fear God, then you better keep your vow to the king. If you don’t, you risk God’s anger.”
So, as 1 Peter 2:13 puts it, we “submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.” This is not about whether or not the people in authority are nice or even whether they’re right. This is about fearing God. If you refuse to obey the laws of the land, you are not fearing God. It’s just that simple.
So obey the king because you fear God. But also, obey the king because you fear the king (v. 5a)! In other words, if you disobey the king’s command, harm will very likely come to you–from the king–because he does whatever he wants–and no one can stop him–and you have gotten on his bad side! Does that make sense? Now, thank God, we don’t live in an absolute monarchy. But we still ought to have a healthy fear of getting on the wrong side of the law. There are multiple people in our church who work in law enforcement; ask them about the price of getting in trouble with the law. I was talking with my dad about this on family vacation. He was saying that sometimes kids who grow up in a Christian home are so used to grace and mercy that if they ever have any run-ins with the law, they are shocked by how unforgiving it can be! There are men and women who will spend their entire lives behind bars because of something they did as a teenager. Solomon says, “Don’t mess with that! Stay far away from it! Obey the king–for your own sake!”
Because If You Do, You May Accomplish Something Good (vv. 5-6).
We’ve seen the consequences of breaking the law. Now let’s look at the benefits of political influence (vv. 5-6). What does this phrase, “time and judgment” mean? The NASB translates that phrase “a proper time and procedure.” In other words, there is a proper way to get things done with the king. The wording of this comment is very similar to that of 3:1, which says, “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” Also, this comment seems to relate back to what Solomon said in 8:6–do not go hastily from the king’s presence (or give up your place of influence), because if you hang in there with discernment, you may be able to accomplish something of great value. So this passage is actually quite optimistic about the potential benefits of political influence. Can you think of a Bible character who used her political influence to great advantage? (Esther) In the book of Esther, Esther uses her position as queen in order to save her people. And throughout the whole process, she was very aware of proper times and procedures. That seems to be the kind of thing Solomon has in mind.
This brings up an important point. As Christians, we can easily develop a sort of adversarial stance toward the government. But wisdom says that we ought to do our best to work within the system and use whatever influence we have in order to accomplish as much good as possible. You say, “I don’t have any influence.” Actually, you do. In fact, you have much more influence than the vast majority of people living in an absolute monarchy, because if you are a citizen of the United States, you can vote. So let this be a reminder to all of us to at least exercise that influence. But I also think that it’s important to be reminded that a career in politics is not necessarily a bad thing. We need good politicians. Nor is it wrong to seek to be politically influential in other ways. There is a lot of good that can be accomplished through political involvement, and it is unwise to overlook that fact. Now, we don’t want to take that idea too far, because the mission of the church is not political involvement; it’s disciple-making. And yet, political involvement has its place.
So point #1: respect political authority. Point #2: Recognize you’re not in control. Like I said earlier, v. 6 is the hinge (v. 6). So even though you may be able to accomplish a lot of good by observing proper times and procedures, you won’t be able to avoid the misery that we all experience as a result of the curse. Verses 6-9 lists seven limitations of human beings. We’ll go through them very quickly.
Recognize You’re Not in Control (vv. 6-9).
You can’t always avoid miserable circumstances. We already looked at that in v. 6.
You don’t know the future, and neither does any other human being (v. 7). Knowledge tends to make us feel like we’re in control. But the fact is that you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So you’re not really in the driver’s seat.
You can’t restrain the wind (v. 8a). The word “spirit” in v. 8 can also be translated “wind.” You can’t restrain the wind. That’s why the phrase “chasing after wind” is such a vivid picture of futility. But there’s also a bit of wordplay here, because the same word in Hebrew can be translated either “wind” or “spirit” in English, and the second half of the verse deals with the human spirit (v. 8a-b).
You can’t prevent yourself from dying. The idea seems to be that just like you cannot restrain the wind, you cannot stop your own spirit from departing from your body when it is time for you to die.
You may find yourself in a dangerous situation from which there is no escape (v. 8c). This is a fascinating statement. Now, the NKJV reads, “there is no escape from that war,” which seems to imply that “that war” is a reference to death, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I prefer to take this as a reference to physical war. Some of you have been in the military and have participated in combat. If not, then you’ve surely read a book or watched a movie about it. Let’s imagine that you’re in the army during wartime, and your unit is expected to confront the enemy on a very dangerous mission tomorrow. There is an eerie feeling in the camp, as you and your fellow soldiers realize that this could be your last night on earth. But at some point during that evening, you say to yourself, “This is stupid. I’m not going to die tomorrow!” So you go to your commanding officer and say, “You know what? I don’t think we’ve got a chance tomorrow, and I really don’t want to die, so I just wanted to let you know that I’m resigning effective immediately. See you later.” Does that work? (no) What if you beg your commanding officer to release you? Will he do it? I’ve thought to myself before, “What if there’s another draft, and I’m chosen? I don’t think I’d make a very good soldier.” But you know what? Too bad! If you’re drafted, you’ve got to serve! There is no release from war. In other words, you may find yourself in a position in which you are forced into a fate you cannot escape. Talk about being powerless!
Some people may think that by mastering wickedness, they can avoid these problems and get the upper hand. “Maybe being wise and obeying the government and so forth has its limitations, but if I give myself to a life of crime and get really good at it, then I will experience power and I will finally be in control!” A lot of people are tempted to think that way. And there are some people who seem to have lived that dream, at least for a time. Think Al Capone. But in the end, not even Al Capone was in control of his life. Do you know what they eventually arrested him for? Tax evasion! I’m not sure, but I would assume that he never saw that coming. There’s no getting around the fact that you’re not in control (v. 8). Solomon says, “Wickedness won’t put you in the driver’s seat, either.”
Finally, those who rule you may hurt you. This point is especially poignant since it comes right on the heels of a passage about submitting to and working with the government (v. 9). Sometimes, those who are in authority abuse their power and hurt others.
You say, “That’s really depressing. What’s the point of this section?” The point of this section is to humble you, so that you will trust God. You see, the answer to your lack of control is the gospel.
Think about this: if you could be in complete control and solve all of life’s problems through wisdom, why would you need God? You wouldn’t. If that were the case, the door would be open for a works salvation, the reason being that if you can fix all of your earthly problems by yourself, maybe you can fix your spiritual problems by yourself, too. But the fact is that you can’t fix all of your own problems, so wisdom alone can never be the ultimate answer. The fact that even wise people suffer forces us to reckon with the fact that we cannot save ourselves. We need God.
The answer to every one of these discouraging-sounding statements is found in the gospel. You can’t always avoid miserable circumstances; but in Christ, you can always have joy as you hope in His promises. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow; but if you are God’s child, you know that He has a plan that involves unimaginable blessings for you. You can’t prevent yourself from dying; but if you have put your faith in Jesus, then there is a sense in which you will never die! That is, you will never die spiritually! When you die physically, you will just go to be with Him in heaven! You may find yourself in a dangerous situation from which there is no escape; but if you have believed in Jesus, you don’t need to fear, because you have already escaped the greatest danger (death in hell), and your eternity is secure. The politicians who rule over you may hurt you; but if you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, then you can look forward to the day when Jesus will reign as King on the earth, and will seek only good for all of His subjects.
All this was bought and paid for when Christ died on the cross for your sins. If you’re not sure that these blessings are yours, then you are literally missing out on the greatest blessing the world has ever known. By repenting of your sins and believing in Jesus, you can become a child of God! So please don’t listen to these negative descriptions and think that that’s all there is! These negative aspects of life, which are a result of the curse, are intended to show you your need and drive you to the cross.
How do we as Christians apply this? Here’s where I’d like to zoom out again. I’d like to apply this passage in terms of the broader principles of making wise choices vs. trying to control life. I thought a picture might be helpful. You see here at pendulum, and on either side, we’ve got two sin tendencies. On one side, there is the tendency toward foolish decision-making. And on the other side, there’s the tendency toward trying to control one’s life. I think these struggles tend to be somewhat mutually-exclusive, so that we usually don’t struggle with both of them at the same time. Some people may be “foolish decisions” kind of people. Others may tend to be “trying to control” kind of people. Or, if you’re like me, you go back and forth between those two extremes. But we usually don’t struggle with both of these things at the same time. Obviously, the goal is to be right in the middle. I hope that makes sense.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that one of the pitfalls of public teaching/preaching is that it’s easy for people to misapply what you say. It can be difficult, for instance, to speak both to believers and to unbelievers, or to address various believers in different situations, who struggle in different ways. In this instance, I think what might tend to happen is that the “foolish decisions” people hear a message like this and say, “Boy, I really need to stop trying to control my life. I just need to relax and take life as it comes.” But that is actually the opposite of what they need to focus on! And the “controlling life” kinds of people can tend to say, “This was a good lesson! I need to focus more on making wise choices,” which may just be their own way of saying that they need to work harder at controlling their life, when what they really need to focus on in trusting God!
I don’t want that to happen to any of you! So I want to encourage you to discern where you’re at on this spectrum. Do you tend to struggle more with making wise choices or with trusting God? You say, “How do I know?” Let me give you one simple test. If you tend to get angry often, you probably struggle more with trying to control your life. Let me explain. Anger is an emotion that we feel when we don’t get our own way. It’s like the little kid in the grocery store who doesn’t get a candy bar. So people who struggle with anger often tend to be highly-motivated, goal-oriented people. You’ve got a mission, you’ve planned out how to accomplish that mission, and you know how all the details are supposed to work and what everyone is supposed to do. So when the details don’t go as planned or people don’t want to cooperate, you get angry. Can any of you identify with this description? Just go ahead and raise your hand! Don’t be bashful; we’re all going to fall into one category or the other, if not both. I know I can tend to be this way at times. So what do we who struggle with trying to control our lives need to do? According to this passage, we need to stop and think. We need to meditate on the fact that although we hate to admit it, we really aren’t in control. We can’t avoid miserable circumstances, we don’t know the future, we can’t avoid death, etc. And then, instead of despairing, we need to trust the One who is in control.
But for some of us, that’s not our main problem. Some of us struggle more with making wise choices. How do you know if that’s you? Well, if you struggle with making wise choices, you are probably the kind of person who fluctuates back and forth between moments of blissful contentment and moments of sheer panic. Those of you who are in this boat know what I mean, and so do the people who know you best. In school, you were the kind of person who put off all of your projects because you were busy with other things, only to nearly kill yourself cramming them all in to the final week of classes. We don’t get angry! We just take life as it comes! (Until of course there’s a problem–and there always is, and then we panic.) How many of you can identify with that description, even if you’re not that extreme? I certainly think I tend to be more on this side of the spectrum, though if you catch me on the right day, I can go the other way on you, as well. If you struggle with making wise choices, what do you need to do? You need to act. Stop daydreaming or socializing, get off the couch, and make a budget, or whatever it is that you ought to do. Plan. Act. In this passage, the particular exhortations have to do with how we ought to interact with the government. We are to obey the government and to take advantage of places of influence. However, I think we could apply the underlying principle here even more broadly to any number of situations that require wisdom, as we see done in Proverbs and elsewhere in this book. I hope that makes sense.
So I’d like to close today with two specific calls to action.
If you struggle with making wise choices, first, be honest about it. And then, go read Proverbs and put it into practice. Take notes and follow-up with specific action steps. If need be, find an accountability partner to help keep you moving in the right direction. Don’t just hear this message, say, “That’s good,” and then go keep living the same way. It’s been said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” So stop making the same foolish choices that have caused you so much distress. Seek wisdom.
Second, if you’re one of those people who struggles with control, go home today and read this passage over again. Then, make your own list of all of the things you can’t control. Finally, pray over that list, give those things to God, and ask Him to help you trust Him and not be angry.